Wisdom and Mindfulness

“Pssst! Wanna become a wiseman? Just in time for Christmas? Then step into my office.”  Well maybe it’s not quite that simple. Picking up a Rolex knock-off or a pirated CD or two, perhaps. But wisdom has to be earned, acquired, built slowly — so that just about the time we retire, don the fluorescent orange vest, and start offering our hard fought knowledge to the kids at the school crossing (if they’ll listen), we get it! Right? Those would be the polarities, the extremes of the process, I suppose. A fake beard and some hokey robes from a guy in an alleyway or a lifetime of careful study and training.
A recent book by Steven Hall (Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience) takes a valiant stab at trying to quantify and define (from a ‘hard science’ perspective) this sprawling and ephemeral quality. And, apropos this blog, comes up with some surprising and gratifying parallels with mindfulness practice.
Hall notes that historically wisdom has been associated with age — specifically, the older we get, the wiser we get (or are perceived to be). That would be right up to the point where we start leaving on the stove burners and showing up in the driveway of the house we lived in two moves ago — and calling it home. The image of the ‘old crone’ as wise woman, the sage as the beaded elder, community wise man are the usual associations. Last time I checked, the image of an adolescent in a hoodie with jeans slung just below his hipbones may convey ‘street smart’ — but not particularly wise. In the 1950’s psychologist Erik Erikson did his bit to entrench this view of old as wise with his eight-stage developmental chart; identifying the final stage (typically commencing in his view at about age 65) as one of ‘ego integrity’ and, when successfully engaged, producing feelings of wisdom in the individual. (The downside of Erikson’s stage was despair, regret, and bitterness — the stereotypic ‘grumpy old man’.)
Where Hall’s discussion caught my particular interest, however, was more in his cataloguing of the behavioral traits associated with wisdom. I was immediately struck by the overlap in his list with features generally associated with mindfulness, making it much more than an ‘old person’s game’: emotional regulation (even-handedness), patience, dealing with uncertainty, tolerance of other perspectives, acceptance of diversity, ability to judge without being judgmental, capacity to ‘reset’ after exposure to adversity, altruism (operating outside the ‘ego’). And the list goes on.
The concept of emotional regulation and our ‘characteristic’ response to challenge deserves some elaboration. Marsha Linehan, a psychologist best known for her work with a very ‘challenging’ disorder, Borderline Personality, immediately came to mind with her formulation of the ‘wise mind‘. She conceives of this ‘place’ as the overlap of two polarities in the individual: the emotional mind and the reasonable mind. Emotional reactivity (typically seen as highly volatile, variable, impulsive, and changing responses to frustrating or angering situations) — and essentially the ‘opposite’ of emotional regulation —  is a central problem for the borderline. Accordingly, Linehan employs a number of mindfulness techniques that allow one to reconcile these two very different ‘states of mind’; the one (reasonable), the cooler, logical, planful side of thinking; the other (emotional), the ‘feeling aspect’, and albeit the one that kicks quickly into gear, often without the pause for considering consequences, etc. The resultant ‘blending’ or balancing of these two states (achieved through mindfulness practice) is very strongly, even in Linehan’s terminology, associated with wisdom.
A second aspect of the wise person that Hall underscores is the capacity to ‘reset’. This one too echoes a very central psychological application of mindfulness, highlighted in the recent work of Zindal Segal and his colleagues as they too use mindfulness training and practice to address another potentially debilitating state: depression. Segal’s approach emphasizes the importance of gaining control of ‘automatic thinking’, noticing when one is being pulled into ‘mindless’ routines and accordingly setting off on a train ride that sees one participating in and being victimized by one’s failure to, again, pause and consider — far down the track before awareness occurs (if it ever does). The wise person, conversely, notices this process early on, makes a choice (dependent on the need of the context, not reflexively or automatically), and is able to experience the event (often one involving some kind of undesirable or adverse elements) and pull himself back — essentially restoring order, balance (vs. careening down the track).
Finally Hall makes a strong case for practice. Citing the work of Richard Davidson with experienced meditators, hard-wired data (i.e., changes in types of actual brain activity) support the contention that regular practice essentially builds a wise mind. By regularly ‘rehearsing’ and applying principles that form the core of mindfulness technique (bolded above), the ‘wise mind’ develops over time — right down to supporting brain structure. So essentially wisdom does (or can) vary with age — but we have to nurture it. It evidently doesn’t happen on its own. And it certainly doesn’t ‘magically’ appear — just because we’re getting older (or grow a beard!).

Link to audio of blog:


Mists clear; webs appear,

residue bejeweled.

Spoked motif of passing bike.

Sunday afternoon, stuck in Ikea’s Marketplace somewhere between the tapers and the tea towels, the mobile on my belt commences to ring (and vibrate!). As my wife pinballs from display to display, I’m daydreaming a bit, wondering if the butcher had heeded (or even heard) my voicemail detailing the butterflied turkey instructions we’d left for tomorrow’s Thanksgiving dinner. I resign myself — if he got it, he got it; if not, it’s hotdogs and beans for ten. The vibro-ring persists and I am pulled from reverie. “What time ya comin’ in to pick up da boid?”. “Rick?”. “Who the _____ else would ask ya dat?” I marvel at the universe and its interconnected wonders (not to mention Rick’s skill with a boning knife) and speculate on the chances of that particular thought floating up at the precise moment the butcher decides to call and to see if he’s going to be stuck with a splatch-cocked gobbler in his display case.
Coincidence. Perhaps. But, come on, at that exact moment in time! Not likely. Ten days ago I’d left a message with a man in Newfoundland responsible for evaluating applications for registration to practice in that province. Part of this process is having a ‘police check’ executed (to shake out any skeletons that may have found their way into one’s closet over a lifetime). I’d mis-read the requirements and, having to return to the station to expand the search (i.e., to include the garage and basement, as well as the closet!), I was in the process of completing a second form. The phone rings / vibrates. “David?”. “Yes.” “It’s John with the NL Psychology Board. Apologies for not getting back to you sooner. . .” Now this is getting really weird!
Carl Jung has a word for these experiences. He calls them synchronous events:  meaningful coincidences. Now, if I was as smitten by The Secret as a shamefully large segment of the self-help book consuming population seemed to be, I might be inclined to take this as ‘proof’ that those compelling vibes I’d put out to the universe (or taped to my bathroom mirror) were just ‘coming back to me’.  But I’m not and I don’t. If I strayed a little too far over that fine line that divides sanity from its less desirable twin, I might be inclined to ‘read in’ a bit of too much into these moments, perhaps seeing some causal connection between my thought and the events that immediately follow. But, last time I had my oil checked, I was neither paranoid nor schizotypal — no magical thinking resident here!
Still there must be something between the outright dismissing of these occurrences as nothing more than an ‘accident of timing’ (or worse, not noticing at all!); and assuming oneself to be so potent and figural in the grand scheme of things as to be able to influence this marvelous coalescence of events.  (Almost sounds like intercessory prayer to me.)  In fact, the idea is far from new. Indra’s web is a lovely, 19 centuries old image that captures what the Buddhists would call interpenetration (aka, coalescence, inter-connectedness) wherein all phenomena are intimately bound together, one to another.  Covering the universe, this web or net has, at each ‘knot’ a jewel, each holding the reflection of all the other jewels. These ‘pearls’ are variously interpreted as points of energy, individual souls, events; in their total, representing all such instances of same. And underscoring how each of us is connected with every other. Alan Watts, the British philosopher and popularizer of Buddhist thought in the West, likens this to a dew-laden spider’s web, the water droplets mirroring all others.
The haiku at the top of this piece took shape, coalesced as it were, as I was riding one early morning in Tuscany. The fog had lifted; but, with its passing and its ‘remains’, it had summoned forth the myriad spider webs at the road side. Normally unnoticed, near invisible, the mists had condensed on the delicate silk bringing them into sharp relief — and into my consciousness. Had I attended even more closely, I would have seen my own reflection, mirrored in each of those thousand prisms, connected to but seemingly so unrelated and separate from those passing structures. One’s regular practice (whether it be a daily sit or a daily ride!) is a best way of opening us to Indra’s web; making the room to notice these seemingly inconsequential ‘knots’, jewels. Easy enough to dispense with them as trivial or the product of a troubled mind. But a reminder nonetheless of the ties that bind us all — if only we pay attention.

I’m 100% Sure!

“Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” Two and a quarter centuries ago, almost to the day, Benjamin Franklin shared this wisdom with a French colleague. Evidently things have changed significantly since 1789. Nowadays folks seem to be certain about almost everything. Just ask  ’em.
A few weeks ago, I had occasion to hear neurologist, Robert Burton interviewed on the topic of his newest book: On Being Certain: Believing you are right, even when you’re not!  The chat was a portion of a program examining ‘the moral high ground’; and Burton’s particular piece was built around the possible neurological bases for these highly compelling feelings of certainty by which we seem so possessed.
I’ve always found myself somewhere between amusement and bewilderment —  but never surprised — when listening to the ‘data’ that creationists trot out when defending their view that the planet is some 6,000 years old — predicated on nothing more (at least originally) than the collected writings found in a single book.  Even a good wrap in the noggin with a Tyrannosaurus Rex shin bone doesn’t seem to knock much sense into them. Most of we ‘rational’ folk are not particularly surprised by either the arguments or the rabid expression of same flowing from the fundamentalist’s mouth. There is just no question. These are absolutes. Again, just ask ’em. (On second thought, unless you’ve got some considerable time to waste, don’t bother!) Or take your common garden cult member. End of the world: sure — have another glass of Kool Aid and get ready for lift off. Or, having put my time in consulting on a small psychiatric unit, one was not especially nonplussed by the firmness of some residents’ belief that the radio was monitoring their conversations and thoughts; or that that injection would, without question, turn them to wood (bet you didn’t know that pretty panelling was actually called ‘knutty pine’.)
News flash! Certainty is not the exclusive province of the fringe dwellers of our world. Scratch any advocate, litigant, short-changed shopper, any adolescent, preacher, car owner, feuding spouse, political party lobbyist, or angry neighbor and you’ll find, just below the surface, adamant belief in one’s being right about something or other. So much for death and taxes.
Take for instance the radical shift our thought processes undergo as we make near any decision of moment in our lives. About half a century ago, a psychologist name Leon Festinger floated his theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Imagine going car shopping. You probably have some idea of what you want to buy — but that only narrows it down to, say Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai. You consult Consumer Reports (bad on Hyundai for lying about their fuel economy; shame on Toyota for selling those sticky gas pedals) — and Honda pulls a little ahead of the pack. But wait, your neighbor has been a devoted Toyota owner for decades and you’ve never heard him complain; let alone drive through the garage door before it’s fully open. But Hyundai is getting rave reviews. OK, close your eyes and jump. In the driveway now sits a shiny, new Hyundai Santa Fe. That’s when Leon’s theory kicks into full gear (so to speak). We immediately become fans only of the good press around our most recent purchase; and we absolutely covet every little hint of weakness, flaw, or failed performance rating of the ‘bad guys’ (that would be Honda and Toyota). We are in the process of reducing our cognitive dissonance, our mental split around what we’ve just done. We are in the throes of convincing ourselves that we’ve made the most logically correct, rational, and fully evidence-based choice. We become increasingly certain of our position.  It matters little that mere days before we waffled and compared, test drove and talked — utterly at sea over which was the better vehicle! We are now 100% sure of our decision, based on little more than, well . . . our need to be certain.
Back to Dr. Burton. As if our psychological inclinations weren’t enough of a problem, the good doctor adds a whole other layer of challenge: our brain itself works to dig the ‘hole of certainty’ a little deeper. His review indicates that not only do we struggle to reduce our split psyche (a la Festinger); but that when we adopt an entrenched, highly committed (dare I say rigid and unyielding!) position, our brain responds in a way similar to eating a large bag of Ken’s best French Fries or chowing down on a Scooper’s triple chocolate brownie waffle cone. In short, it acts like we’ve just given it a treat of the week! The ‘pleasure zones’ light up like a Christmas tree.
Be it Robert Burton, Bertram Russell, or John Stuart Mill, restoring a little balance, a little equanimity to these extreme positions can only be a good thing. Russell’s summary observance was that most of the evils man has wrought against man can be traced to feeling quite certain about something that, in fact, was false. Doesn’t take a lot of imagination to fill in some pretty compelling and gut-wrenching examples of this statement!
Mr. Mill believed that people benefit from listening to the points of views of others; ones that are different from our own. He maintained that it was not about convincing the other or having them change their mind; it was about remaining open ourselves. Far from undermining our perspective, this opening compels us to remember the roots or grounds of our opinion or belief — the very reasons we adopted the position in the first place. Otherwise we behave ‘mindlessly’, responding from a rote, well-rehearsed, and automatic position without intention, choice, or consideration. If this all sounds very close to the tenets that underpin a mindfulness practice, it’s no coincidence. I know that for sure!